Rating: 3 out of 5
Zola is a rare, miraculous film. The special movie that leaves you simultaneously devastated, incensed and puzzled. Based on a twitter thread, this is a beautifully shot and depraved slice of digital whimsy that is infuriating only because it insists on stretching out material that is best treated in earnest with a wicked sense of resigned humor and at it’s worst when it allows these elements to bog down the pacing. This is a film that fluctuates between moments of elevated intensity where the plot picks up with daring speed only to halt to a glacial slide full of hazy synths, meandering slow pans and stagnant shots out of a car window. This is a conditionally good film; frustrating, inscrutable but also deeply effective.
The film begins with our titular protagonist Zola (Taylor Paige) working out her days at a sleepy diner when she is seduced into a stripping gig by Stefani (Riley Keough) who exudes suspiciousness but ultimately promises Zola good pay to join her on a gig at a strip club. This eventually leads to a multiple day trip down the coast of Florida that finds the two ladies embroiled in dubious and dangerous conflicts, in which Zola is often tasked with using her intelligence to navigate the escalating tension. The scenes in the clubs are shot fabulously, in spite of some of the gnarly situations and locations the characters find themselves in there is a pervasive sense of beauty in this film, lights shimmer on the screen and everything feels aesthetically manicured. This aids the film in creating a genuine headspace that is absolutely intoxicating, even as decisions become more complex and blatantly desperate the confident direction and the stellar lead performances propel you, along with these characters, to dizzying highs and lows.
There are many moments in this film in which Zola realizes she has bit off more than she can chew, and the script often emphasizes how resilient and brave she has to be in order to respond to these situations. She’s also a cunning hustler. When she finds out how little Stefani is being paid for her prostitution jobs she alters the price point and insists that men will pay for it. What ensues is a montage that would make My Own Private Idaho-era Van Sant extremely proud and makes for a euphoric and comedic highlight of the film. While Taylor Paige gives her all in the role, the script leaves Zola a bit thin, as if it finds Stefani a more interesting character, and while she is certainly more readable than Zola, the film suffers from a lack of clarity around what it’s trying to say through her and falls a bit flat in this regard.
The closing moments of this film left me gnawing at its meaning for days. Ultimately, however, this is a frivolous and earnestly felt journey. While the images resonate, the emotional heft (or lack thereof) doesn’t always carry the same weight, implied rather than explicit. While ambiguity can often work in a film’s favor, for Zola it feels like it was a result of being absent of ideas or insight into the story it was crafting. The climax is satisfying in an almost Claire Denis-esque turn where a minor character suddenly has a tumultuous breakthrough and is pushed to the forefront of the narrative but this comes across as an opportunistic storytelling moment rather than a deliberate thread with actual gravity.
So Zola is by no means a perfect film but I will be damned if it’s an uninteresting one. This film is bubbling with ideas until it seemingly isn’t. This is more of a showcase for the directing chops of the obviously talented Janicza Bravo who while I did not enjoy her previous effort Lemon, I must confess to being absolutely smitten with her voice here. She’s made something daringly original and unapologetically honest, inviting you into a world that is abrasive and languorous in equal measure, it’s this dichotomy captured under the unsparing eye of the Florida sun that allows this oftentimes captivating and suspenseful film to play out in such vivid hues. You have my full attention Ms. Bravo.